Sunday, 23 November 2014

Holiday improv

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
8 November 2013

I've never lived in a country as willing to adopt and personalize seasonal traditions as the Czech Republic. In 2002, when I first arrived in Prague, hardly anyone had seemed to have heard of Halloween. There were no pumpkins on display at the green grocer's and no garish ghost masks or rattling chains for sale in toy stores and decoration shops. If Czechs knew anything about Halloween it had been acquired through American movies and television.

That year on All Saints Day, November 1, Radek took me on a Czech tradition, visiting a cemetery. We stopped by his great-grandmother's grave near his hometown. We set out a plant we had brought and lit a candle. The whole cemetery was unusually bright and colorful, with fresh wreaths, potted plants and cut flowers adorning the graves, and candles flickering in the autumn wind.

Gradually, over the past ten years, Halloween has crept its way into Czech schools, play centers and community autumn harvest events. Even Halloween costume events for teenagers and adults have taken off. Now you can find deals on Halloween paraphernalia in a variety of places, from the grocery store to accessory shops. In addition, green grocers sell a range of edible pumpkins, decorative gourds, carving pumpkins and squash.

This year, my children's Czech elementary school actually renamed their autumn harvest party "Halloween." The event included pumpkin carving by class, prizes for the best costumes and a candle-lit lampion walk around the school's garden while singing Czech campfire songs. The evening almost fit my children's dreams of a perfect Halloween night, but for one aspect missing: trick or treating.

I'd spent the afternoon making sugar cookies in the shapes of pumpkins, witches and ghosts for the kids' classroom bake sales. I thought the kids would be satisfied with the treats. But they weren't. They begged for me to take them trick-or-treating like I had in years past.

In the first years when we lived outside the center of Prague, I'd hosted a Halloween party at our house. Initially, the party had been a small affair, mostly "half 'n half" families like my own. The children played games in the playroom and my mom, who was visiting, had read The Littlest Pumpkin. At some point in the night, a few representative parents hid behind the bedroom doors upstairs, and the children knocked on the doors for a make shift trick-or-treating round. My mom had brought typical Halloween "treats" like candy corn from the US, so even the candy had the allure of being different.

The following year, with the help my neighborhood, I planned an outdoor trick-or-treat route for the children, complete with candle-lit paper lampions. The children carried around the lampions and sang carols (a special impromptu touch added by all the Czech and half-Czech kids who got the tradition a bit mixed up with Czech Easter). After the children had traipsed around the neighborhood and had received enough candy and homemade sweets to last for weeks, we ended with games and food at our house. The parties blended international families who were familiar with the Halloween tradition with some of my Czech neighbors who'd never celebrated the tradition before.

Once Anna Lee started first grade, though, the timing of her school's autumn event began to compete with our neighborhood parties. Since the kids wanted to participate in their school's Halloween, I gave up my role as local Halloween organizer. However, my neighbors had embraced Halloween and the local trick-or-treating prevailed, at least among the pre-school aged crowd.

This year, we were invited to celebrate Thanksgiving at our friends' flat a few weeks early and just a couple days after Halloween. Since our friends were also blended or American families, I suggested we have the children come in Halloween costume. My friend readily agreed, and she planned the evening to include trick-or-treating after our turkey dinner, but before the coffee and pumpkin pie. There were only five children and three doors to knock on, but the kids were more than excited. They spent the afternoon putting together their costumes (different from the ones they'd worn at the school's Halloween), and mused about the candy they'd get. I was afraid my older two might be disappointed by the calmness of it all, since their idea of trick-or-treating had been shaped by the parties of previous years.

However, when the kids knocked on the first door, they were surprised to find the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood greeting them with treats. At the second there was a friendly Roman in a toga, who knew them all by name. And at the third and final bathroom door, a hairy devil jumped out wagging his tongue. The children were delighted, if a bit taken aback. As they tore into their Halloween goodies, which included marshmallow ghost Peeps and Jelly Belly candy corn (treats that impressed the adults as much as the kids) talked turned to the upcoming Advent season and the excitement and challenges of preparing for Christmas.

With the Advent season rapidly approaching, the International Women's Association of Prague (IWAP) is preparing for their 4th annual Charity Christmas Market to be held November 23 from 10am to 4pm at the Diplomat Hotel (Evropska 15, Praha 6). Nearly 40 different vendors will be offering a variety of holiday shopping products as well as fun activities for children that will make this international event one not to miss. Admission is free and proceeds from the event will go to the organization's chosen charities, Amelie and DOM.

I plan to stop by for inspiration on how to make this Christmas in the Czech Republic a memorable one for my own family. I'm inspired by these women who are working to introduce some of the seasonal and holiday traditions of their home countries, while helping local charities in the Czech Republic. It's likely I'll meet a few new faces and perhaps run into some familiar ones as well.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.